Higher Ed, News, Trump Administration

DeVos finalizes sexual assault rules that critics say ‘roll back the clock’

Environment, Trump Administration

DEQ, NC Attorney General sue Trump administration over Clean Water Act rollbacks

The NC Department of Environmental Quality and the state Attorney General’s office have joined 16 other states in suing the Trump administration over rollbacks of Waters of the United States rule, also known as WOTUS.

The rule, which narrows the scope of waters that must be protected under the Clean Water Act, is scheduled to take effect on June 22, 2020.

Enacted by Congress in 1973, WOTUS,  regulates “navigable waters” — rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands and seas, as well as any waters that directly connect to them. This rule plays out in real life when an industrial plant wants to discharge pollutants into a river or a state transportation department wants to fill in a wetland to build a road. In each case, the entity must get a federal and state permit detailing the extent of the harm it can exact.

In. 2015, the EPA under the Obama administration strengthened the WOTUS rule based on science. New research showed the importance of underground hydrological connections between ephemeral or intermittent streams and their more robust counterparts. Obama’s WOTUS rule acknowledged the ecological value of isolated wetlands in providing flood control and wildlife habitat. It did not, contrary to the rule’s opponents, apply to most farm ditches, farm ponds, and storm water retention areas in housing developments.

But the Trump administration, catering to the real estate interests, agribusiness, mining companies, pipeline builders, and industrial dischargers, has rolled back WOTUS and other key provisions in the Clean Water Act. Fewer protections for streams and wetlands mean some of these sensitive waterways would be polluted, filled in, dredged, or paved over with impunity.

The EPA’s own documents show that nationwide, 18% of all streams are considered “ephemeral,” meaning they are only filled with water primarily after rainfall; they would lose protections, even though they contribute to ecosystems and aquatic habitats.

Wetlands, too, are imperiled by the EPA rollback. “This rule threatens decades of improvements in water quality and endangers North Carolina’s unique wetlands,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan. “This historic rollback of protections will result in a significant loss of natural resources and it is not based on science and runs counter to decades of EPA policy. DEQ will continue to use the state’s authority to protect water quality and the associated economic benefits to North Carolina.”

For example, wetlands that are connected by groundwater to a regulated lakes or stream would no longer be protected. Nor would wetlands that physically separated from those waters by human-made dikes or barriers. (Technically, all that would be needed to circumvent the Clean Water Act is to build such a barrier.

In its court filings, DEQ and the NC Attorney General argue that the new rule arbitrarily narrows the existing definition of waters protected under the Clean Water Act and excludes many of North Carolina’s wetlands. These wetlands play a critical role in filtering pollution and slowing stormwater during flooding events.  “The new rule also reduces protections for drinking water sources, risks damage to our fishing industry and increases flooding risks from runoff and sea-level rise,” DEQ said.

The case has been field in US District Court of Northern California. It asks the court to vacate the Trump administration rule and to declare it “capricious, arbitrary and unlawful.”

Environment, Trump Administration

EPA undermines mercury, air toxics rules and no one’s happy except coal companies

Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant in Asheville in 2014; the utility has since retired that facility and seven others in North Carolina, retrofitting them as natural gas units. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Duke Energy is among many of the nation’s utilities that oppose the EPA’s latest gutting of air pollution rules, which discount health benefits of the regulations while amplifying the economic ones.

Known as MATS — Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — the rule regulates emissions of the potent neurotoxin mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Children and developing fetuses are particularly vulnerable to mercury’s toxic effects. Exposure can permanently harm cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills, and visual spatial skills.

While the EPA revisions don’t explicitly overturn MATS, they change the way the agency will calculate the costs and benefits of it — and future ones. This  will accomplish the same goal of relaxing environmental regulations.

“It’s very sinister,” said Carol Browner, former EPA administrator from 1993 to 2001. She now serves as chairwoman of the League of Conservation Voters. “They’re counting every single cost, but ignoring the fact that costs come down because innovation solves the problems more cheaply.”

When enacting or amending a rule, EPA is required to account in detail the public health, environmental and economic costs of a rule, and weigh them against those respective benefits. But the EPA’s new changes allow it to ignore some scientifically proven public health benefits, such as avoided heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. That will distort the cost-benefit analysis.

From 2011 to 2017, mercury emissions decreased 81% because of the MATS rule.

Duke Energy spokesman Philip Sgro told Policy Watch that the utility has invested billions of dollars to comply with the MATS rule, “and we support keeping the MATS rule in place. Our investments have paid off greatly, with the company reducing mercury emissions by 95% since 2002. Using some of the same technologies, we have also reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 96% and nitrogen oxides by 74% since 2005.”

The EPA’s current revisions were prompted by a 2015 US Supreme Court decision that stated the agency had not fully considered the costs to industry in crafting the mercury rule. The Obama administration recalculated the costs — at roughly $9.6 billion annually — and reissued the rule in 2016.

In a press release, the EPA said the new revisions correct the alleged flaws in the 2016 rule.

Joe Aldy, a professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the EPA has ignored entire categories of major health benefits of the mercury rule, such as the number of avoided heart attacks — 4,700 per year. “The EPA zeroed this out,” Aldy said.

Public health experts have estimated the MATS rule has also prevented 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,700 emergency room visits.

Since emissions control technology is already in place, the beneficiaries of the new action are coal companies and producers. Not coincidentally, EPA Adminstrator Andrew Wheeler previously worked as a coal lobbyist.

“This is disgraceful on part of EPA,” Browner said. “It’s nothing other than a giveaway to big polluters.”

The rollback also presents environmental justice issues. Dominique Browning, co-founder and director of Moms Clean Air Force, said that 68% of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal fired plant. Latino children are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack as white children.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, noted that the rollback is one of many the EPA has enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, the agency unraveled regulations on tailpipe emissions.

“What they’re doing on MATS is dismantling how agency is doing its business,” Browner said. “They’re doing severe damage to decision-making of the agency: changes in cost-benefits, changes in enforcement. They don’t stop.”

Commentary, Trump Administration

New analysis documents devastating impact Trump’s ACA sabotage has had on health care coverage

Researchers at the Center for American Progress released a new analysis this morning which shows that at this critical moment for access to health care, well over a million additional Americans would be enrolled in marketplace coverage if not for President Trump’s continuing efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.

This is from the news release that accompanied the new analysis:

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress released new column examining trends in Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace enrollment and the effect President Donald Trump’s sabotage has had on stunting the public’s ability to obtain coverage. The analysis looks at disparities in enrollment patterns in both the federally facilitated marketplaces (FFM) operated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and state-based marketplaces (SBM) operated by the states.

The authors estimate that at least 1.26 million more people would be enrolled in marketplace coverage today if not for the Trump administration’s attacks on the ACA, and total enrollment would have at least held steady near its 2016 level instead of falling.

“We’re in the middle of a public health crisis that has crippled our economy, causing millions to lose their jobs and employer-provided insurance. This analysis shows that the administration’s refusal to create a coronavirus special enrollment period is just their latest effort to make it harder for people to get and stay covered,” said Emily Gee, health economist at CAP and co-author of the column.

And this is from the introduction to the analysis:

Since the first day of his administration, President Donald Trump has repeatedly tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), even though it provides crucial consumer protections for health coverage and has led to nearly 20 million more Americans gaining insurance since it was signed into law in 2010. While the ACA remains in place, three years of Trump’s policies have taken a toll on enrollment in the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces. According to new data published by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), 11.4 million people signed up for 2020 coverage—a decline of 1.27 million people (10 percent) since 2016.

While the ACA’s reforms created marketplaces for people buying insurance directly from insurers in every state, individual states can choose to operate their own marketplace enrollment platforms, allowing them a greater degree of control over outreach efforts and enrollment rules. Comparing enrollment trends among such state-based marketplaces (SBMs) against those in states that instead use the federal government’s enrollment platform—known as the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM)—provides a picture of how enrollment may have fared in the absence of the Trump administration’s sabotage from 2017 to 2020. The Center for American Progress estimates that at least 1.26 million more people would be enrolled in marketplace coverage today if not for the Trump administration’s attacks on the ACA, and total enrollment would have at least held steady near its 2016 level instead of falling.

The novel coronavirus pandemic highlights the importance of comprehensive insurance coverage. To date, a dozen states have reopened enrollment to the uninsured because of the COVID-19 pandemic, recognizing both the importance of comprehensive insurance coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment as well as for helping to mitigate the financial strain caused by the pandemic, seen most clearly in millions of people becoming unemployed. Despite calls from more than 200 organizations to create a nationwide enrollment opportunity in this time of crisis, the Trump administration has so far refused to reopen marketplace enrollment.

Click here to read “How Trump’s Policies Have Hurt ACA Marketplace Enrollment.”

Commentary, COVID-19, Trump Administration

Virus-era voting: The stakes couldn’t be higher

"Vote" pin

Creative Commons License

[Editor’s note: This article was written before the chaotic April 7 Wisconsin primary, in which many voters were forced to put their health at risk in order to cast in-person ballots, and before President Trump urged his fellow Republicans to resist any further move toward mail-in or absentee voting because it would hurt their election chances in the fall.]

In keeping with the familiar rhythms of American politics, this is a year when many of our elected leaders, including the president, and their would-be successors will stand for inspection before the voters. They will offer themselves for judgment on their performance, for appraisal of their likely success going forward, for assessment of character and qualities of leadership.

There must be this caveat, however: It is only through elections that are fully accessible, fair and accurate that we as citizens can properly render our findings.

Of course the road toward elections meeting that high standard has been full of twists and potholes. But then along came the coronavirus plague of 2020, posing degrees of uncertainty and confusion for the ongoing election cycle that could shake our democracy to the core. If we let it.

The overriding challenge now facing not only our governments at all levels but also our entire society is to save as many lives as possible while also protecting people from the ravages of economic shutdowns that are needed to keep the virus from spreading.

But there also must be a concerted effort to think through how the pandemic could, and likely will, disrupt the usual ways we go about preparing for and conducting elections next fall – including the voting that’s supposed to determine whether President Trump will serve a second term.

That includes the process of candidate selection – already thrown off-stride in the presidential race as Democratic front-runner Joe Biden has had to put his campaign in neutral just as he appeared poised to claim the role of presumptive nominee.

Fortunately in North Carolina, where primary elections were held on March 3, candidates from both parties have been chosen for races up and down the ballot. (A delayed runoff for the Republican nomination in the 11th Congressional District is scheduled for June 23.) But several other states where primaries have yet to be held now must navigate stay-at-home orders, social distancing and other obstacles to business as usual.

At least those efforts could amount to trial runs for the kinds of steps that could well be needed in order to hold credible elections in November – when the stakes will indeed be huge.

Systems under stress

The N.C. Council of Churches long has emphasized the importance of robust voter participation in fairly and honestly conducted elections as a top social justice priority. If elected leaders are to be fully accountable, they must answer to the broadest possible cross-section of the voting public, including folks who otherwise have been pushed to the margins of influence and advantage.

That premise stands as securely as ever during a year when the vulnerable among us – those thrown out of work amid economic turmoil, those in crowded, substandard housing, those facing unmanageable expenses for health care – must cope with challenges on a crushing scale.

But just as significant is that for the first time in living memory, what will be tested in the months to come is our system’s capacity to reflect the views of enough eligible voters to bestow the consent of the governed that lies at the heart of democracy and, when called for, that clears the way for orderly transfers of power. Read more